Schumann: The Songs

in: Schumann: The Man & His Music, edited by Alan Walker, 1972 (pp. 120-161)



The Lied, or song for voice and piano, in which poetry is recreated as  music, is an essentially nineteenth-century (“Romantic”) art-form which can be arbitrarily defined as beginning with Schubert's first songs (1812) and ending with Wolf’s last (1897). It had ancestors in North Germany and Austria; [1] it soon had siblings in Russia and France; it now has descendants everywhere. But its new, individual voice belonged to an emergent German-speaking middle class; and its musical language fell midway between the courtly diction favoured by the nobility of the Hapsburg empire and the freer expressive vernacular of the people.

     All this had necessarily been preceded by a similar development in German poetry; the art of Holty for example, like that of Goethe himself, contained a new ferment of feeling which broke down classical thought and metre into simpler stanzas suitable for singing. At the same time, the pianoforte had de­veloped into an accompanying instrument which could provide not only sup­porting chords, like the homely guitar, but independent melodic lines and enriched tone-colour, like the court orchestra. Similarly the social milieu of the Lied was neither the homestead nor the palace, but the drawing room. It was made for small intimate fellowships rather than large societies, whether humble or noble; it remains the ideal art-form for friends or lovers.

     So from its earliest beginnings it expresses the emotions and aspirations of the individual. Ideally, indeed, the same person could be its poet, composer, pianist and singer, all in one. This tradition of the lutenist or troubadour was being revived in a sharply labour-dividing society; and in practice the new art, like that society, was better served by specialization. Yet its essence remained indivisible; in its music as in its poetry it deals electively with the feelings of one particular character, man or woman, real or imagined, at a given time; and usually in circumstances or surroundings which serve to set off or intensify those emotions. It is no mere hazard that the first great Lieder are about a girl's concern for her lover (Gretchen am Spinnrade), a father's fears for his son (Erlkönig), each imagined against a background of scenes and moods apt for quasi-dramatic recreation in sound. In this art-form words and music, lyric and drama, speech and action, mood and character, are fused into one substance; and many of its elements derive directly from the main influences absorbed and transformed by the young Schubert — the courtly wisdom of Mozart opera, the simple immediacy of popular song.

     Schumann in his turn was at first influenced by the mastery of Schubert and by the popular songwriting of his own day, including the work of Spohr (1784­1859) and Weber (1786-1826), as well as such minor figures as Gottlob Wiedebein (1797-1854). But his own dozen juvenile essays in that form (1827-29) proved unrewarding, and he soon abandoned it for the expressive piano-cycle or suite, which became his constant preoccupation from his eighteenth to his twenty-ninth year. At first this seems perplexing. His verbally-oriented mind made him a born song-writer. Yet not only did he write no song of any conse­quence until his thirtieth year, in 1840, but as late as 1839 we find him writing to a friend that he had always considered song an inferior art-form and ranked below instrumental music. [2] There is no reason to doubt his sincerity. From 1834 onwards he could have written about any topic he chose in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the journal he helped to found and later edited. But he wrote rather seldom on song, and then without any notable enthusiasm; he was gener­ally content to leave (indeed, to delegate) that topic to others. [3] A study of his own writings in those years helps to explain this view. He believed that music was a form of language, and that the duty of the song­writer was therefore to translate verse into music. For mere musical illustration, however (even in Schubert and Loewe), Schumann had a special distaste. Music ought not to be brought down to the level of words. Such a feeling would reflect Ls own personality and position. As a critic and composer, he was a leader of contemporary thought; despite the injury to his right hand, he retained a virtuoso's grasp of keyboard music. Besides, his own piano music already had speech  and language of its own; poetry would be at best an irrelevance, at worst rival.

     Yet by the end of 1840 Schumann had sufficiently overcome his objections to become the world's greatest living songwriter, with about 130 songs, including all his best-known masterpieces. Only Schubert in 1815, and Wolf in 1888, can match this for sustained inspiration; and each of them at the time was a practised songwriter. Schumann, the inspired layman, crammed his life's best work in the song form into a few months of memorable mastery. So profuse and violent a flowering must have been seeded early and deep in his creative mind.